India-Bhutan Relations: The Way Forward

Chokey Namgyal Bhutia

10th April 2021

India has not only been doing an applaudable work in the Covid-19 vaccination drive within the country but internationally too India has been supporting many nations with its vaccine supply. Amongst the many countries, India chose its friendly neighbour Bhutan as the first country to import its vaccines. Once again, post the Doklam standoff, India made all reflect upon its friendly relations with Bhutan vis-a-vis the geo strategic changes that is occurring in the South Asian region in consonance to China’s increasing involvement.

The relationship between India and Bhutan goes a long way back. Buddhism and Guru Padmasambhava had been a strong link in the cultural relations between India and Bhutan. With the exception of few direct and indirect engagements with British India, Bhutan managed to remain out of British colonization. It was quiet successful in maintaining itself in isolation, for its cultural and traditional identity preservation. Post the exit of British from Indian subcontinent, Bhutan was in a great dilemma regarding its self-isolation position. On one side, Bhutan was adamant to stay isolated from the other countries, but on the other side, the geo strategic developments in the form of annexation of Tibet and threatening Chinese troops near its borders compelled Bhutan to come out of self-isolation and forge relations with India. This decision of Bhutan reflect upon the trust factor it placed on India and until date, India has contributed substantially well in maintaining the trust and friendship. The 1949 Indo-Bhutan Treaty of Peace and Friendship became the central pivot of their friendship.

India has always been one of the most prominent countries since decades in providing plethora of economic and other forms of assistance to Bhutan.  Some of the important areas of cooperation between the two countries are in the areas of infrastructure development, hydropower projects, trade, defence, education etc. To further leverage their friendship, the 1949 treaty of peace and friendship was amended in the year 2007, which gave an equitable position to Bhutan in its bilateral relations with India. Bhutan got its independence in foreign and defense affairs with the 2007 amendment. The priority accorded to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official visits to Bhutan in both 2014 and 2019 in the beginning of his first and second terms and also the increasing regularity of other high profile bilateral visits have attested to the cordiality and significance of this relationship bilaterally as well as a primary component of India’s neigbourhood first policy.

Taking into consideration Bhutan’s strategic location as a buffer zone between India and China, Bhutan has always been a strategically important country for India and similarly for various reasons, economic and strategic, India has always held a primary position in Bhutan’s foreign policy calculations. Therefore, the relationship between India and Bhutan have always been stationed on cordial terms.  However, the concern that arises currently is: would the current shifts that is taking place in the dynamics of South Asian region vis-a-vis China affect their friendly bilateral relations.  Amidst the ever so increased presence of China in almost all the countries of South Asia, would Bhutan also in the near future fall prey to China’s strategy?

If this happens it would be detrimental for India and Bhutan’s long tested relationship set aside the security concerns it would raise for India. China has the potential of creating a fault line in the balanced relation between India and Bhutan, considering how China has been constantly coaxing Bhutan for diplomatic relations and has been offering Bhutan with lucrative exchanges and assistance, which Bhutan has till date not given a much consideration. India can be one of the major reasons for this decision of Bhutan.

Therefore, in the present context, the deepening of the already existent friendly relationship between India and Bhutan has turned out to be even more imperative. The relations between India and Bhutan over the decades have evolved with mutual loyalty and trust. Till date any form of changes, conflicts, diverging opinions on bilateral and multilateral forums has not led either Bhutan or India to act against each other. But this can change if India and Bhutan take their friendship for granted.  Today with the exception of Bhutan all the South Asian countries have multiple engagements with China. China has a keen eye on Bhutan, but Bhutan still stands by India in spite of some existing skeptical opinions against India that occurs in Bhutan.

But nothing is permanent in international relations. As adamant as China can get in wooing away Bhutan, India should further strengthen its measures to keep Bhutan at it side. Both the countries need to realize the importance of their friendship in the changing foreign policy dynamics.  India can keep increasing their financial assistance for Bhutan. They can focus on more inclusive infrastructure development of Bhutan, education and cultural field of cooperation can be further deepened. More trade routes can be figured out like the recent one of June 2020 wherein India and Bhutan opened up a new trade route between Jaigoan in India and Pasakha in Bhutan to further boost their trade relations.  India and Bhutan have stood by each other from the 1960s to till the recent Doklam standoff and the Covid – 19 pandemic. India being the bigger country owes more responsibility in taking more concrete steps for addressing the concern and grievances of Bhutan and the Bhutanese people. After all, a secure border with Bhutan significantly aligns with India’s own interest for peace and security in the South Asian region.

***The author is an Assistant Professor, Sikkim Government College Burtuk and a PhD Scholar at JNU, New Delhi***